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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Senate Climate Bill

Air Date: Week of

US Senator Sanders speaking at the press conference for his carbon tax bill, Senator Barbara Boxer on the right. (photo: Senator Bernie Sanders)

President Obama promises executive action on global warming, if Congress fails to enact climate legislation. Now Senator Barbara Boxer of California and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have introduced a climate bill that includes, among other measures, a tax on carbon emissions. Senator Bernie Sanders discusses the legislation with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

With John Kerry now Secretary of State, leadership for the crusade to address climate change in the United States Senate has passed to Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer of California and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. And the two have wasted little time in taking up the challenge of President Obama, who has vowed to take executive action on climate change if the Congress fails to act.

Senators Boxer and Sanders have introduced legislation that would, among other measures, impose a twenty dollar per ton fee on carbon emissions that would be mostly rebated to households. Senator Sanders joins us now from Washington, DC. Welcome to Living on Earth!

SANDERS: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: So the centerpiece of your bill is what you're calling a fee and dividend on carbon emissions. How would that work?

SANDERS: Well, the good news here is that what we are doing is focusing on the 3,000 largest emitters of greenhouse gas in the country, putting a fee of $20 per ton of carbon or methane equivalent.
CURWOOD: So this will be what, the oil refinery?

SANDERS: Coal mines, the oil refineries, the natural gas processing plants, or at the point of importation as well - which would deal with about 85 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. So this is not going to be a fee, which impacts tens and tens and tens of thousands of entities. It's kind of what we call an "upstream”, where the emissions take place.

CURWOOD: So how exactly would it work? How would you impose this?

SANDERS: Look. Here’s the point. Here's the point before we get into all of the details. The important issue to understand right now is that according to the scientific community, we stand the danger of seeing the planet Earth temperature rise by 8°F by the end of this century. If that happens, and we’ve talked to many of the leading scientists who study this issue, what they are telling us is this will cause catastrophic - underline catastrophic - damage to the planet. What we already know is that 12 out of the last 15 years have been the warmest on record. We already know that we’re looking at unprecedented levels of drought, of floods, of extreme weather disturbances like Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. We’re looking at the continent of Australia burning up. We’re looking at heat waves in Europe the people have never seen before.

The most important issue before we worry about every line of any legislation is, is the Congress of the United States going to wake up and say we have a planetary crisis here and we have got to address it. And if you ask me, and I already deal with a lot of issues out there, my greatest embarrassment of being a member of the United States Congress right now, it is that you have a major political party, the Republican Party, who refuses to listen to what the scientists are saying. You have the ranking member, from a ranking member of the Environmental Committee telling us if you could believe it, that the climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and the Hollywood elite and United Nations. I mean, that's where we are. And my fear is that if Congress does not get our act together, you're gonna see more and more extreme weather disturbances, more and more problems which will cost this country and this planet a hell of a lot more than the legislation that Barbara Boxer and I have introduced.

CURWOOD: This carbon fee, this effective carbon tax, where would the money raised from these fees go?

SANDERS: Good question. Among other things, a lot of the money - actually the majority of the money - would go back to the people of United States to help them with any increased energy costs they may incur as we begin to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels. Some people will be forced to pay more for fuel and they will. A lot of money we’re raising, we expect to raise about $1.2 trillion over a 10-year-period. The majority of that money goes right back to the American people to help them pay for increased fuel cost. Significantly we also put a whole lot of money in weatherization, we would rather weatherize a million homes a year.

We would put money into research and development for breakthroughs in energy...how can we move more aggressively to sustainable energy? A lot of research being done out there, and we want to be cutting edge in that. We would also invest in worker training to make sure that we had the people available to do the work that we need to transform our energy systems. So, by the way, this also becomes a jobs program because we can put a whole lot of people to work in energy efficiency and weatherization and in sustainable energy.

CURWOOD: So quickly to bring it down to the individual listening to this, maybe he works in Wyoming, drives this truck hundred miles a day to get to work and is worried about the price of gas going up. How does it help him?

SANDERS: It helps him because we would be creating a nation in which his grandchildren and his children would be able to live comfortably. If we do nothing, if we do nothing, the projections are that the droughts that were seeing in the southwestern part of this country, the forest fires that we’re seeing, will only intensify. So the main point to be made is that we don't have much of a choice on this. If we want this planet to be habitable for our kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we have to act.

Now if the question is, will he - and in Vermont, by the way, our people travel long distances to work as well - might he have to pay more for a gallon of gas? I don't know the answer to that. But the reason that we're putting a whole lot of money back into the people is to help them cover the cost. Now, in terms of automobiles and trucks, what we have done - and the Obama people have been good at this - is we have significantly increased the café standards - that is the mileage per gallon that cars and trucks have got to get, and that is the future. I think we have got to provide a lot of support for hybrid technology so that we end up using less gasoline that we currently use. And move toward some degree the electrification of our transportation system.

CURWOOD: So tell me about the timing of this. Why did you decide to submit this legislation now...February 2013?

SANDERS: A couple of reasons. The major reason is this bill actually addresses the problem. What we hear from the scientific community is that we are on the precipice. That if we do not act boldly right now it literally may be too late. There's a point of no return where if we do not cool the planet down, if we do not stop the warming of the planet, it'll be just too late. So what we have introduced is a bill that would cover about 85 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and by doing that it will become a statement to the rest of the world - to China, India, other countries - that the United States is serious about addressing this problem, we want to work with you. So it's not good enough in my view just to give speeches, you know, saying how serious the problem is. You got to take action and we do it.

Bill McKibben, director of 350.org, speaking at the press conference (photo: Senator Bernie Sanders)

The truth of the matter is, and this is, in a sense, the good news, we know how to cut greenhouse gas emissions; the technology will only improve in years to come. Solar will become less expensive, and it has become much less expensive in recent years. It will continue to go down. Wind will become more efficient. I just talked this morning to some folks in the geothermal business, and in Vermont more homeowners are looking to geothermal - got to get the word out about that: biomass - some good developments there. We know today how to break our dependence on fossil fuels.

Now the problem is, the political problem is, that you have an energy system made up with the coal companies, the oil companies, etc. who have enormous economic and political power; you can't turn on cable television without seeing another ad from these guys. These guys buy and sell politicians, spending huge amount of money in campaign contributions. That is the problem that we have. So we’ve got a planetary crisis; in my view the United States should play a leading role. We know how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. What we need is a political effort, a grassroots effort in America putting pressure on Congress to say, “Excuse me, get your act together and protect our kids and grandchildren.”

CURWOOD: Having a committee chair behind you is extremely powerful in a situation like this. Ordinarily, the environment you just outlined, the pressure from industry would keep this bottled up in committee, but...

SANDERS: That's right and having Senator Boxer, whose been just terrific on this issue as a co-sponsor - original co-sponsor - is a huge step forward. And I think frankly it is high time that this country had a debate, a real debate on it based on facts and not disinformation. There was just a piece that the fossil fuel industry was spending over a hundred million dollars - all kinds of phony think tanks - trying to really confuse the American people and say, “Well, you know, we’re not quite sure...some people say global warming is real and it’s manmade and some people say that it’s not.” That's what they're spending zillions of dollars on; the truth is the scientific community is almost 100 percent united in saying global warming is real, that global warming is significantly caused by manmade activities, that global warming is already causing serious damage to our country and to the world and that it will only get worse. That is the reality.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit more about the hearings...how extensive, what kind of people are you going to bring forward to make the case?

SANDERS: We're going to bring forward the leading experts on climate in the United States and in the world. I have talked to a number of them. We have already had hearings with them over the years, and what they will likely say, and have been saying recently, they've been saying, “You know, we were wrong when we talked about global warming in the past...we were wrong because we are underestimated the problem. The problem is now looking to us a lot worse, more severe, more draconian than we had thought it was.”

And I suspect that they will also tell us - and we want to be with the economics of this - is that at a time when, and your listeners know, that just last month US Congress voted $60 billion dollars - and I voted for this - to help New Jersey and New York recover from Hurricane Sandy, that terrible devastating hurricane - and my state of Vermont a year and a half ago was hit by Irene - devastation all over many parts of our state. What I think these scientists will tell us, that it makes a lot more sense in trying to address the issue of global warming, cut greenhouse gas emissions, than spending huge amounts of money every year. And I suspect that number will be more and more, rebuilding communities that were devastated by extreme weather occurrences.

Michael Brune, director of the Sierra Club, speaking at the press conference (photo: Senator Bernie Sanders)

CURWOOD: You see opposition to your measure from Republicans...what kind of support do you see from the White House?

SANDERS: Umm - lukewarm. I think the White House will tell us that global warming is real, that we need action. My suspicion is that they will not go anywhere as near as far as they have to.

CURWOOD: I understand that Jack Lew, who’s been nominated for Treasury Secretary, has said that it’s unlikely the administration would have plans for any form of carbon taxation.

SANDERS: That's correct. That is what he's said.

CURWOOD: Now you’ve introduced a companion bill that would eliminate certain fossil fuel subsidies...what would that do?

SANDERS: Right now as everybody who is paying 4 bucks for a gallon of gas knows, our friends at ExxonMobil and the other large oil companies are doing very, very well. In fact, ExxonMobil is the most profitable corporation, as I understand it, in American history. And if you look at the federal taxes that these large corporations are paying - and it’s not just the oil companies, it’s Wall Street as well - you have some years, some years because of a variety of loopholes, and the fact that these people employ hundreds of very smart accountants, and some of these very profitable oil companies pay zero in taxes. Nothing in taxes. So we think that when you have an industry which is A: enormously profitable and B: is producing a product whose emissions are causing devastating problems for our nation and the world, we should end the subsidies that they are currently enjoying.

CURWOOD: One last question before you go, Senator. Republicans are much opposed to your proposed carbon tax. You say the White House is lukewarm about it. Here's the question: how do you get this from idea from bill to legislation to become the law the land of the United States, understanding what you’re up against?

SANDERS: Well, that's a very fair question. What Senator Boxer and I have done is brought forth what we consider to be the gold standard. And that is legislation that would actually do what the scientists are telling us has to be done. Now, do I think this is going to be an easy political fight? No I don't. You have all of the energy companies; you have the national Association of Manufacturers coming out against you; you’ve got all the big money interests coming out against it. It really boggles my mind that you have an industry who for the sake of their own profits are prepared to do terrible harm to our planet. I really do, to be frank with you - I understand people want to make money and that's okay - but that you're willing to wreck havoc on this planet for our kids and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren in the future...that to me is unbelievable.

So do we have a hard political fight? Sure we do. But I believe, especially since Hurricane Irene, and especially Hurricane Sandy, when people are saying, “Are we going be seeing more and more of these devastating weather events which is going to cost the government and insurance
companies and homeowners so much money to rebuild, that we got to do something about it.”

So I think ultimately like everything else, you know, whether it’s the civil rights movement, or the movement toward women's rights or gay liberation or whatever it may be, the impetus will come from the people who say to Congress, “You know what, I want my kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to have a decent life. You’d better do something to protect the planet.” And when that happens Congress will find the courage to stand up to the big money interests.

CURWOOD: Bernie Sanders is an Independent United States Senator from Vermont. Thanks so much for taking the time with me today.

SANDERS: Well, thank you.



Text of the Bill

More about Senator Sanders

More about Senator Boxer

US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Press Release about the climate bill


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